1959 US market advertisement clipping for the Renault Dauphine. A 1958 Time article said: "The car that has come up fastest in the US market in the past year is Renault's Dauphine. A snub-nosed 32-hp Sedan, it is low-priced, economical and small enough to shoehorn into a small parking space." The same article said "The Dauphine is already outselling Volkswagen in eleven U.S. states, including Texas. So brisk is demand that Renault and the French Line have formed a new shipping company CAT (Compagnie d'Affrètement et de Transport). with six freighters that ferry up to 1,060 Dauphines each across the Atlantic. To serve the U.S. buyer, Renault in just 18 months has also built a nationwide network of 16 U.S. distributors and 410 dealers." (who had little access to parts/service, and often operated out of gas stations and tractor dealerships.)
After initial success in the U.S. market, the Dauphine began to suffer. An internal agent, Bernard Hanon (who would later become chairman of Renault) conducted a thorough market study that signaled trouble, and sent his report to the director of Renault Inc. in New York. The director filed the report away without acting on it; it was found years later by envoys from corporate headquarters in Billancourt. The damage had already been done; thousands of unordered Dauphines sat at ports worldwide, decaying. The damage to Renault was immense; and the company faced the first serious crisis in its history.
By October 1960 a slump had hit imported cars in the US. Time reported that "In August the U.S. imported 50% fewer French cars than in July, and for the first six months of the year imports ran 33% below the rate for the same period in 1959. Two ships loaded with Renault Dauphines were turned back in mid-Atlantic because the docks in New York were already overcrowded with unsold Dauphines."
In the U.S., Renault sold 28,000 Dauphines in 1957, 57,000 in 1958 and 102,000 in 1959 — falling to 12,106 by 1966. Most of the criticism summarized the Dauphine's shortcomings when driving on the recently constructed United States Interstate Highway System as the car was built for French driving conditions which were much more localized. When driving the Dauphine in city environments, it is nimble and easy to get around crowded conditions. France didn't begin to build the Autoroutes of France until French Law 55-435 was passed April 18, 1955 to create a similar highway system previously built in Germany, called the Autobahn during the 1930s.
This Renault Dauphine at the top of the Continental Divide, in Colorado, USA in August, 1964
A 2008 retrospective article in The Independent said "as soon as the US market had come to grips with the Dauphine's swing-axle manners and useless acceleration, they were pole-axed by its abysmal corrosion record. It would take only one New York winter of driving on salt-strewn roads to give a Dauphine front wings that resembled net curtains."
In 1967, in debut U.S. magazine advertising for the Dauphine's successor, the Renault 8, Renault said: "Our [earlier] cars were not fully prepared to meet the demands of America ... More than a fair share of things went wrong with our cars. Less than a fair share of our dealers were equipped to deal with what went wrong," describing the Dauphine's replacement as "The Renault for people who swore they would never buy another one."
In a 2000 survey, Car Talk named the Dauphine the 9th Worst Car Of The Millennium, calling it "truly unencumbered by the engineering process" — albeit in a survey where Tom Magliozzi called the voters "a self-selecting bunch of wackos, most of whom are really aggravated by a bad experience with one of the cars".
In 2007, Time with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Neil named the Dauphine one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time, calling it "the most ineffective bit of French engineering since the Maginot Line" and saying that it could actually be heard rusting.